The first sign of madness is said to be talking to oneself.

As someone who lives alone, I talk to myself quite a lot. I also write to myself. I’ve kept a journal since I was a child, carefully documenting every meal I ate in childhood, every boy I had a crush on in adolescence, and every internal issue I was wrestling with in adulthood. Folder upon folder of my life - deeply uninteresting to those who might stumble across it, but somehow impossible (so far) to throw out.

I discovered Morning Pages after reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way a decade or more ago, and diligently wrote my three pages a day. Unlike my journals, these writings were disposable. You were supposed to chuck them out afterwards. Therefore I never needed to be precious about their contents and could rant, rave and obsess to my heart’s content. No-one else would ever read them (unless a dustman retrieved them from the bin to peruse, in which case More Fool Him).

Recently, however, my journaling has taken a different turn. I read a fascinating interview with Sue Grafton in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing (Writers Digest Books). (This, by the way, is a fabulous handbook - a huge tome full of wonderful interviews and ideas.) So Sue Grafton’s chapter is all about the use of the working journal in writing a novel.

Every day, before she begins her current novel, she opens up a file which she calls ’Notes’, which she describes as ’a letter to myself’, and ’an emotional tether connecting me to each day’s work’ and which may eventually be four or five times the length of the completed novel.

She begins in a Morning Pages kind of way. Just checking in with herself, letting off a bit of steam, or simply clearing her brain of any detritus that’s hanging around ’if I’m coming down with a cold, if my cat’s run away, if I’ve got company coming in from out of town.’ Then she notes down any ideas that may have come to her during the night. Or she offloads any anxieties or concerns she has about the WIP. She then ’talks to herself’ about where she is in the book: the problems with the chapter she’s working on; the brainstorming of possibilities; the experimenting with ideas. She jots down any questions that arise, or scraps of dialogue, or ideas for new scenes. And this process slides her easily into the day’s work.

I didn’t really believe this was likely when I began a new practice over the last couple of months which has gradually evolved into a combination of Morning Pages and Working Journal. Every day, whilst eating my breakfast cereal, I fill one side of an A4 sheet of paper with longhand, rain or shine. Afterwards, I throw it away. Simples.

For the first several weeks, it was a chore. And it was very moany indeed. I struggled to fill the sheet. I got bored with my own complaints. The best thing about it was that I could chuck it out immediately afterwards.

Then, something else began to happen. I was still using the first few lines of it (sometimes more) to detail my bad night’s sleep, or my frustration with The Everlasting Meter Move (don’t ask), or my irritation with myself for being such a miserable git. What I call the mental grime. But as soon as I began to think about the WIP - or the marketing of my soon-to-be-published novel - or whatever was uppermost in my mind, I got really engaged. Ideas began to flow. It was like a wonderful brainstorming session with myself. Somehow, my unconscious mind had registered the time-and-paper constraints after a month or so of practice: rather as your mind can ’programme’ your body to wake at a certain time if you focus on it before sleeping. And because such ideas often came along in the last third of the sheet of A4, I moved seamlessly to the computer afterwards to write them down. Once I’d done so, the day’s sheet was thrown away, and I was off.

Grafton says there’s an additional bonus to the working journal: when you’re immersed in your next novel and look back at the journal for the previous one, you’ll see the same issues and problems and fears resurfacing as you are (probably) feeling now. A reminder, as Grafton says, that:

‘Prior journals are reminders that regardless of past struggles, I did somehow manage to prevail. Having survived through two novels, or five, or even twelve, in my case, there’s some reason to suppose I’ll survive to write the next.’

I thoroughly recommend it.


JO said...

I also scribble first thing in the morning. And mostly its drivel - and rightly thrown away. But you are right - very occasionally real thoughts do emerge from the dawn-fug.

Interesting that you post this now - I have drafted a piece on by blog about writing practice, and will probably post it on Friday. Great minds, and all that!

Helen Black said...

I've always avoided stuff like morning pages, considering that if I had the time to do that I should be spending it on my WIP.

But Sue Grafton is so prolific that that simply cannot be true.

I'm due to sub the latest draft of book five to my ed before the end beginning of August (yeah I know when that is....). Perhaps I could benefit from morning pages in August when I'm free?
HB x

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Jo, that's synchronicity! :)
Helen, try it. You never know!
In her interview, Grafton gives examples from her journal. After the initial 'mental grime' she's really immersed in her plot, asking questions about what could happen next, noticing that she needs a bit more tension in this spot, working out how to get a character from here to here. It's fascinating.

Debs Riccio said...

Susie, I'm so glad you wrote this, I now feel I have proper permission to clear my mind of annoying irritations (of which there are MANY first thing of a morning, which can't be healthy)in a professional way and dispose of them properly - and you're right, when I have started a moaning missive about 3/4 of the way through a light begins to emerge - synchronicity indeed!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Oh, really glad to hear this, Debs. It does help to get the grime out of the way. It's like mental cloud that hides the blue sky/sun. If that doesn't sound too cheesy...

Sheila Cornelius said...

I think I'd stop reading stuff that went on about emotional tethers, etc, but I was intrigued to read this piece to learn what someone else does with journals. From time to time I throw mine away , and I'm about to dispense with another dozen or so. I realised a while back that I never re-read or consult them. So I suppose they became just 'practice writing', similar to the notebooks filled with Chinese and Spanish from my language studies. Just recently I'm taken up by the idea of journal-writing in Spanish and Chinese, just a few paragraphs, but for the same reason - to practise.